Bike Racing Categories
Most American bicycle races are sanctioned by USA Cycling (USAC). As the “official” sanctioning body for all competitive cycling in the United States, they run the national championships and Team USA, which sends athletes to world championships and the Olympics.
Every one of those athletes has gone through the same process and ranks through USA Cycling. While the very talented tend to take an abbreviated journey, the following generally how the system works (this article primarily focuses on the road cycling rules but the general premise is the same across all disciplines).
In order to race a USAC event, you must have a USAC license. You purchase it from USA Cycling and the fees go to USA Cycling for things like marketing, sanctioning events, anti-doping control, and a whole list of other things that I wont go into and don’t really matter. While there is probably some controversy of the efficacy of all of this, I’m not here to debate that. This is merely how it works.
When you purchase your first license, you are assigned a USAC license number. This number will follow you around for the rest of your life. It is like your second social security number. I am #293350. If you don’t know if toff the top of your head at registration, you will be chastised (Jason Knauff once chastised me at BlackHawk Farms for not remembering mine. All in good fun). These are given out in numerical order so you can get a sense for how long someone has been racing by the size of their license number. Useless information but kind of fun.
As a license holder for a given discipline, you are a member of a category. This is typically shortened to “cat” among cyclists (and now you know the genesis of the cat in catwhatever.com). Races are scheduled based on category and typically you are racing only other racers in your category. There are exceptions to this. It is not uncommon to see a “3/4” race in which Cat 3 and Cat 4 racers are in the race. Most commonly the combined field will be a P/1/2 race in which Professionals, Cat 1’s and Cat 2’s are all int he same race.
Racers progress through the categories. There is no skipping; you must progress through all of the categories (sorta…more on that in a bit). The rules are updated for 2020 and beyond so I’ll explain how it works today, and how it worked when I was there.
A note on “points”
I’ll be referring to “points”. Points are awarded based on results. Generally speaking, you get more points for races with more people. First place get’s the most points. Most places in the race do not get any points. Some event types are worth more points than others (A road race has more points potential than a criterium, for example).
Cat 5: The beginners
Everyone starts here. Even Lance Armstrong was a cat 5 briefly (technically, he started as a cat 4, as the 5th category didn’t exist yet…but you get the idea). This is the only category in which you can buy a “one-day” license. You pay a small fee and it grants you access to race. The premise is to let people try it out without forcing them to make the larger one-year commitment/fee. While I believe you can eventually transfer results to your USAC number, one-day licenses are not stored to any official record.
The makeup of a Cat 5 race
Cat 5 races are generally pretty short. Crits are roughly anywhere from 20-30 minutes long. The road races are usually no more than 40 miles.
I always say that these races are some of the hardest you’ll do. They are very short so they are often aggressive from the start (there isn’t a lot of time to wait and see how things play out) and most of the people in the race have next to zero race fitness and so riding that hard is very foreign to everyone.
In addition to the distance and speed, they look different. There is not a lot of experience riding at speed in a pack so the peloton tends to be very wide with everyone giving each other a lot of space. Not many are comfortable in close quarters yet. The race lines are not very refined and there is a lot of yelling happening. All of this is appropriate; experience is low and nerves are high.
Progression out of Cat 5
When I began racing the requirement was 10 races and you were automatically made into a cat 4. There were no points calculated for wins and getting into the Cat 4 races did not depend on ability or results in anyways. There was no leeway on this, you either did 10 or you did not.
As of the 2020 rules, you can upgrade to the Cat 4’s anytime you want. You are forced to upgrade after acquiring 10 points.
Cat 4: The most diverse group
This is really when the fun begins. By now you’ve got a few races under your belt and you understand how the day works. Often, there is now money to be won at the race and the fields are larger. This is an interesting category because you will have every demographic in bike racing here.
A typical cat 4 race might consist of a 20 year old that is just getting into racing, a 19 year old who has been racing for 5 years. There are phonemes that will only be here for a few weeks and 40 year old lifers that will never get out of the category due to talent or desire.
As a result of this diversity, cat 4 races can tend to be a little sketchy. Two racers can enter a corner next to each other at 25mph, one is in his 11th race and another is in his 100th race. The ability to handle that situation correctly begins to look very random from afar as a result.
Progression out of Cat 4
The remainder of the upgrades (Cat 4 through Cat 1) are based on acquired points. You acquire points by doing well in races.
Currently to upgrade to cat 3 a racer must have 20 pack finishes or 20 points within 36 months. A racer will be forced to upgrade after 30 points or 3 wins (in a field of 21 or more racers) in a 12 month span.
When I was racing, I believe the requirement was 20 points within a 12 month period.
Cat 3: Too fast for their own good
I personally find the Cat 3 field to be the most dangerous. In order to be a cat 3, you have to have had some level of success (historically at least, this will change with the new upgrade rules). Success as a Cat 4 is almost always a matter of physical talent over racer IQ (this is not a dig on Cat 4 racers, they just haven’t generally had the time to develop this skill). Many Cat 3’s are use to doing well (as cat 4’s) and so they are always racing as if they are the strongest rider out there.
These races tend to not develop like a lot of higher level races in which breakways develop and teams take control. Instead, it often appears to be an every-man-for-them-selves sprint to the finish. This can often result in overly aggressive tactics sprinkled with an often-unwarranted overabundance of confidence. There is an overwhelming abundance of ego in these races as many of these racers are some of the fastest guys on their team and in their towns but have not yet been exposed to the true talent that exists at the national and international level. This rarely leads to anything useful. Am I salty? Maybe…
These fields tend to have younger racers compared to the Cat 4 field. I have a feeling this is because many are unwilling to deal with the nature of these races for very long, and there are age-based “masters” categories that older racers are able to race (whether or not those races are any safer is up to debate).
Progression out of Cat 3
Again you must acquire points to upgrade here. The latest rules state that a voluntary upgrade can occur after 30 points in 36 months in order to get a cat 2 upgrade. 40 points or 3 wins in races with more than 21 racers in any 12 month period are an automatic upgrade.
Cat 2: No man’s land
This is the largest jump in talent of all the upgrades. There are fewer Cat 1’s than any other category and fewer Cat 2’s than Cat 3’s (and so on). Because of this, to keep fields large enough to matter, almost every race day has a “P/1/2” race. Occasionally you will see a P/1 race which typically happens at larger national-level events. On these days, there is typically a subsequent Cat 2 or 2/3 race. These days are fairly rare.
On a given day at a P/1/2 event you can have a field that consists of a racer who was a cat 3 last week (and upgraded to the 2’s) racing alongside a professional that does nothing but race their bike and get paid (generally very little) to do so. This person has gone from being one of the fastest racers in their field to being outclassed on a level that they didn’t even realized could exist. While the average speed of a crit in the 3’s might be 27mph for an hour, it is not uncommon for P/1/2 races to average 30mph for 90 minutes. As a result of this dramatic change in talent, it is very common for people to give up racing within a year or two of getting their cat 2 upgrade.
What is great about these races though is that the speed is always high and most people here have been racing for a number of years. In spite of the fact that the speeds are high and for many their livelihood is on the line, I find these races to be some of the safest in all of cycling.
Progression out of Cat 2
This is probably the hardest upgrade to acquire because on a most weekends you are racing people who have more skill and more experience. The current rules dictate you can voluntarily upgrade after 35 points in 36 months. A mandatory upgrade will occur after 50 points or 3 wins in a field of 50+ starters in a 12 month span. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a mandatory upgrade here. Since you are already racing Cat 1’s every weekend, and there are certain events that you can only race as a 1, most people are eager to get this upgrade when they are able.
Cat 1: Who cares?
Since 90% of the races a Cat 1 does are P/1/2 race, I’ve already described this a little. A cat 1 license does open up one door though. Many national level events are P/1 only. These are big races, often with thousands of fans and production. As of today, these refer primarily to NRC or USACrits races. Sometimes an amature team that has a roster full of Cat 1’s can request to be invited to larger professional UCI events (these are by definition, international level events).
Progression out of Cat 1
Technically, there is none. This is the last stop in the USAC category journey
What about the pros?
Technically, being a pro has nothing to do with your category. Getting a pro contract does get you a pro license but if a team wanted to sign a Cat 4 to their squad, I’m not sure there are any rules against that. This does not happen.
Most pro’s are signed as Cat 1’s though I’m sure there are some promising cat 2’s that are picked up by a pro squad with the intent of development. Even as a pro, there are different levels but this is an attribution of the team more than the rider. That is a conversation for another day.
I really want to stress that that the life of the average pro is not what you might think the pro life is (especially compared to the other main American sports). Most of these riders are paid what is realistically a stipend more than a salary. I knew two pro female cyclists that qualified for public housing (and rightfully took advantage). Being a pro athlete in a fringe sport is about passion and dreams. Getting that pro contract is rarely the end of the journey and almost never a windfall.